Studies show that climate change conditions are affecting the functionality of agricultural soils, which are essential for providing a sufficient and stable supply of food for countries across the world.

An international research project, led by the University of Lincoln, UK, is seeking solutions to this global issue. Researchers are exploring how the microbes in soils can ‘learn’ to adapt to climate changes to prevent future food shortages and preserve the agricultural industry.

Coastal areas are highly productive agriculturally – where some of the UK’s most valuable crops, such as potatoes, grow. Rising sea-levels and increased droughts due to climate change will increase the salinity (levels of salt) of soils in these areas – potentially damaging the crops that grow there.

Increases is soil salinity stresses soil microbes and harms the overall health of the soil. This will ultimately result in decreased food outputs – meaning that food could become scarcer, prices could rise, and that there could be an increased reliance on importing food with greater carbon footprints.

The project will involve the Lincolnshire community by working with local agricultural companies. The region will act as a testbed to answer global challenge questions around sustainable agriculture, climate change and food security.

Professor Matthew Goddard, from the University of Lincoln, said “With the world facing unprecedented rises in sea levels and global temperatures, the agricultural industry will need to adapt and respond to shifting circumstances.  

“Saltwater contamination is hugely problematic for soil degradation and decreases crop yields, especially in dry areas.  If the microbes in soils can learn to tolerate increased salinity through gradual biological processes, growers may condition soils to remain fertile.

“This process will simultaneously increase food supply and reduce agricultural freshwater use, especially in dry periods.”

Dr Iain Gould, Senior Lecturer in Soil Science at the University of Lincoln, added “The idea of this research is to see if soils can adapt to higher levels of salt in climates where irrigation water is becoming increasingly saline.  

“By doing so, we hope to improve the resilience of some of our most productive soils to ensure a stable supply of food throughout the UK and further afield.”

The University is working in a consortium with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the National Institute for Agrarian and Veterinarian Research in Portugal. The research has received funding in the UK from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

The University of Lincoln is home to a centre of international and impactful research and facilities, specialising in science that makes a difference across the agri-food chain. Research areas include soil management, which aims to support farmers, landowners, and ecosystem managers in developing effective, sustainable approaches to land and water management.

The project is part of the European Joint Program in Soil and is titled ‘Preadapting soil biology for increased tolerance to elevated salinities due to climate change’. More information about the project is available here.